Without proper laboratories and chemicals, less privileged schools struggle with the teaching of chemistry. But Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus, lecturer at Stellenbosch University (SU), decided to make a plan.
Growing up in Beacon Valley on the Cape Flats, a teacher once remarked that no one from this neighbourhood would ever become a doctor, let alone obtain a PhD in chemistry. Yet that is exactly what Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus achieved at age 28. Today, six years later, this SU alumna is a researcher and lecturer in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at her alma mater, where she specialises in nanotechnology.
But this article is not about her or her research. It is rather about her passion to give something back, to inspire children from similar circumstances that they have a choice, that they can make something of themselves. Just as she did. Shortly after her appointment at SU in 2013/2, she approached the then head of department, Prof Klaus Koch, with ideas for an outreach project. With the department and some funding on her side, the next step was to find out how best to achieve this ideal.
"I didn't want to force our project onto the community. So we first organised a meeting with teachers from local schools to understand what they needed," she explains. The answer was unexpected, but crystal clear: "Please help us to comply with the CAPS guidelines," they said.
CAPS is the acronym for Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements and entails a revision of the current National Curriculum Statements. Since 2014, physical science teachers are expected to present and assess nine formal and 12 informal practical assessments per year for Grades 10 to 12. But the text books lack good examples of how to perform the experiments. Add to that insufficient laboratory facilities, apparatus or even chemicals, and the odds are that very few learners ever gain any practical experience.
"Chemistry has the reputation of being difficult and obscure," says Koch. "Yet it is a very practical, tangible and fascinating science. That is why it requires a practical learning-by-doing approach if you want to arouse learners' interest in the field."
Trixie Niklous, a physical sciences teacher from Zeekoevlei High School in Lotus River, says 90% of the parents cannot afford the R1 500 annual school fee. "Most families do not know where their next meal will come from. We provide breakfast and lunch to our learners. There is no extra money to buy chemicals for experiments."
So Malgas-Enus obtained the CAPS document, worked through it, and designed a series of CAPS compliant experiments for Grades 10 to 12 physical sciences. The next hurdle was to have the experiments approved by the Western Cape Education Department. Only then could the initiative, called SUNCOI (SU Chemistry Outreach Initiative), get off the ground. "We had to make it worthwhile for the teachers and learners to give up their Saturday for chemistry. I believe this is one of the main reasons why the workshops are so popular," Malgas- Enus adds.
Since 2013, nearly 900 learners and 200 teachers have donned white lab coats and spectacles to perform the prescribed experiments in several of the Chemistry Department's fully- equipped laboratories. SUNCOI relies on a group of dedicated staff and postgraduate students in the Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science.
While Malgas-Enus takes care of the content, the senior technical officer, Jabu Lukhele, investigates the technical and practical feasibility of each experiment. After many talks and changes, he takes the experiment to his colleagues, Peta Steyn, Moebarrick Bickerstaff and Kwezi Mbalo, to prepare it for the laboratory. Since 2013 the group has not missed a single SUNCOI workshop.
Tertia Jaftes from Kylemore High School in Stellenbosch says the workshops are a great help to struggling teachers: "We have laboratories but we do not have sufficient equipment to do the practicals, or to let every learner do it by themselves. We are extremely grateful for the opportunity to come to the university and attend these well- researched and organised sessions."
"I find that my learners answer the questions better. They understand the theory better because they saw and did the experiments themselves," agrees Aldridge Jacobs from Cloetesville High School.
At Zeekoevlei High School in Lotus River, the number of learners taking physical sciences as a subject until Grade 12 has increased slightly since they became part of the initiative in 2015. Previously, the school contemplated dropping the subject because of a lack of interest. Niklous, says the fact that Malgas-Enus comes from that community is a huge inspiration to her learners: "They see someone who comes from their community, someone who came to university and made something of herself. If she can do it, then why can't they?"
In order to reach even more learners, SUNCOI presents an annual workshop for physical science educators from high schools in the Metropole South and Cape Winelands district. And to address the problem of resources, the SUNCOI team also designed kits with the minimum amount of chemical reagents and basic lab consumables needed to perform the complete practical five times.
Looking back at growing up on the Cape Flats, Malgas-Enus says she was fortunate to have grown up in a safe and loving home: "Even though I grew up in Mitchells Plain, I never went to bed hungry or cold. After my father passed away in 2003, my mom's factory job kept us going. I worked hard to be where I am today because I knew how hard my mom worked for us."
She feels strongly that SUNCOI is not about recruiting learners for chemistry per se: "Rather, I'm using chemistry as a vehicle to show them that there are other ways to escape from the gangsterism and drugs. Realise that you have the potential and that nothing can hold you back. "I can say it because I've been there. And if I could do it, so can they."
CAPTION: Dr Rehana Malgas-Enus in the laboratory. Photo: Stefan Els
- This article is published in the latest edition of the SU magazine, Matieland. Read the magazine at www.sun.ac.za/matieland. You can also register on this website to receive the magazine for free.